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Myths surround the mysterious McRib

3 min read


It’s no secret that the McDonald’s McRib has developed a cult following since it debuted in some markets in 1981, but stories, myths and now a research project aim to discover the reason the sandwich shows up when it does, only to disappear again a few weeks later.

Restaurants generally have several reasons for launching limited-time items, including seasonal promotions and a chance to try out a dish to gauge whether guests love it enough to perhaps make it permanent. But the McRib has evolved into a special case, not tied to a holiday, not a permanent part of the menu but a recurring character around which buzz seems to grow greater each time it appears. So, how did it go from another test sandwich to perhaps the most famous limited-time quickservice offering?

McDonald’s began testing the sandwich at a few restaurants in 1981 and did a nationwide release the next year. In its first two incarnations, the sandwich was part of the regular menu. It was pulled in 1985, reintroduced in 1989, then stayed for six years until it was pulled again. This time, McDonald’s promoted the McRib’s exit with a “Farewell Tour” that proved so successful that the chain repeated it after limited runs in 2006 and 2007.

McDonald’s has done its part to promote the McRib mystique since, including an ad campaign last year that featured a groom reluctant to embark on his honeymoon and miss the McRib. Another campaign featured a Facebook game called “The Quest for the Golden McRib.” But one thing McDonald’s said it doesn’t do is time the sandwich’s return to rivals’ release of pork products. The comment came in response to newly released research from the University of Dayton saying that the chain does exactly that. A pair of researchers said they studied the timing of McRib releases between 1982 and 2011 and found that they typically came within months of the introduction of pork items from McDonald’s competitors, including Au Bon Pain, KFC, White Castle, Burger King and Quiznos.

Another source said the McRib’s reappearances have more to do with the supply chain. The sandwich is made from pork-shoulder trimmings, which is also used in products including SPAM and Vienna sausage. Two years ago, University of Nebraska professor Roger Mandigo told the Lincoln Journal Star that one key reason the McRib isn’t a permanent offering is that prices for relatively scarce pork trimmings increase with demand spurred by a McRib promotion, and the long interval between promotions gives prices time to stabilize as supply is replenished.

Whatever the reason, the limited-time strategy has turned what was once a less-than-popular sandwich into an iconic menu item that gains big buzz and media coverage each time it returns.

Does your restaurant do limited-time items? What works best when it comes to promoting them? Tell us in the comments.